Shabu Shabu: all time favourite Korean food (which many argue isn’t Korean) comes in a few different ways and should appeal to all. This was the dish that added to the love of Korea/ Korean food and made everything shiny and nice the first time round. Back in 2012, I hung out in an English cafe for 6 or so hours a day for a few months and got paid in the form of lunches. Good times. [Food memory coming – scroll past the next two paragraphs if you’re in a rush to get to the rice paper rolls.]
One crisp Spring mid-day the boss’s wife, ‘Ruby’ took me to Chae-So-Ya, a Shabu Shabu chain, and a damn fine one at that. It’s in the Lotte Cinema building, the end closest to the supermarket and up on level two, in Wonju. I recall before heading to the restaurant, of not wanting to actually go because the name to me sounded fat and ugly and I expected chunky fish heads with hundreds of chillies or something else too exotic for the small number of days I’d been living there. Cue happy relief where pictures of vegetables and shaved beef on large plastic signs at the door stood. It was my first week in Korea and everything roused excitement: the quaint practice of removing shoes before entering the restaurant; sitting on the warm floors to eat; cooking the food at our table, to our liking; the giant windows for people watching below; the bell buttons on the tables to call the waitress and make the order; the service; the speed at which the meal is set down; how healthy and fresh the food can be; the low-cost for high quality.
‘Ruby’ ordered us the lunch special at 9,000 won each and then stepped up as chef and teacher for the meal. What lay before us looked like it would’ve fed 4. Shabu Shabu is a hot-pot in the centre of the table, with the meal being cooked in five stages. 1. The soup is boiled with fish cakes, onion, a piece each of pumpkin and potato and a couple of rice cakes. 2. The green vegetables are blanched in the simmering broth, removed, then dipped into your own sauce bowls. Sauces make or break a meal. This place knows it. 3. The meat is put into the broth and because of its thinly shaved cut, it cooks in about 30 seconds to a minute. My friend told me that in Japan, they dip the meat in for a couple of seconds, take it out and then dip it in raw egg yolk and eat it. I’m a fan of the Korean way. 4. The mandu (dumplings/gyoza) and fresh-cut noodles go in. While this one’s boiling away there’s a heavily mayo-ed cabbage slaw and water kimchi to attend to. By this stage, the starches from the noodle’s flour coating and the simmering away have thickened up the soup. Concentrated salty boom goodness, my favourite part. Too bad ‘Ruby’ was a nurse and ladled it out, claiming it’s not good for us. “tooooo much salt. health. bad” By now, the cooking pot has little remains and the fifth and final stage, after an hour of eating and chatting, is upon us. 5. A little bowl of rice with seaweed and dehydrated vegetables is scooped out and into the pot and an egg with sesame oil is dropped on top. This is quickly broken up with a ladle and all vigorously stirred to create the final button bursting bite. Gruel. That word sounds ugly, the food taste great. Sip on cinnamon iced slush water after.
Ahh food memories, just as good as smell memories.
Saving the best for last, first up to bat is the ‘Vietnamese’ style Shabu Shabu.If you’re into fresh and salad-y type meals, this one is for you. It’s lighter than the standard Shabu Shabu, but just as, if not more filling. Rice paper rounds are set down with a bowl of warm water. The pink colouring and lemon wedge were a cute touch at this restaurant. If you manage to get through all your rice rounds, you can refill them for free, but it’s best to leave room for the rest of the meal.
The broth is set alight and the dishes are set down around in a rainbow of colour. Meat, salads, noodles, sauces, rice and kimchi clutter the table.
The leafy greens and mushrooms are blanched, while rice paper gently soaks for a moment until it’s softened and draped over the hollowed plate. Veggies are then piled up while pieces of meat brown in the salty broth. On the board are bean and alfalfa sprouts, finely shredded beetroot, carrot, cabbage, cucumber and perilla leaves and sliced onions. They’re all wonderfully chilled, crisp and crunchy. Pile it on and wrap it all up.
Competition time begins, to see who can make the prettiest wrap. Bobby’s is on the left and mine’s on the right…pretty sure he won this round. I usually pile my goods so high that it’s like a little(?) coin bag instead of a roll.
Once the wraps are all done and you don’t want anymore, it’s on to the flat rice noodles. They’re added to the broth along with bean sprouts and seaweed, that now has all the extra flavour from the reduction, meat and vegetables.
I sometimes feel with the Vietnamese style Shabu Shabu you’re silently screaming out “when will it end?!?” and giving Steve Carell’s crazy eye from ‘Date Night’… You power through, eat up your noodles, add in the rice and egg while breaking out in a sweat. With this one, a slice of pumpkin is added and smooshed up. There’s an unspoken mission to eat it all every time we go for Shabu Shabu. Definitely go on an empty stomach for this type of meal.
The best two chains for Shabu Shabu are Chae-Seon-Dang 채선당 and Chae-So-Ya 채소야 purely for their sauces. The above was nice for the restaurant layout and the freshness of their vegetables, but the sauces lacked the oomph that the other two chains provide and drops it down a level. Sauce is everything! If you haven’t tried the two above mentioned chains, then you mightn’t be phased by said sauces. If you’re now looking for Shabu Shabu, use one of the above two or let us know some other good ones.
Happy eating – Chan and Bob